Bob Lawrence (Leslie Banks) has accompanied his wife Jill (Edna Best) to Switzerland so she may compete in a shooting contest in the mountains. That is not the only sport held there, as skiing also takes place of course, and their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) has just gotten in the way of French skier Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) as he jumps down the slopes when she tried to retrieve her runaway dog. He crashed into the crowd, no harm done and one man (Peter Lorre) who has a noticeable scar on his forehead seems to think the whole incident was hilarious, but Betty has a habit of getting into bother, as seen when she breaks her mother's concentration at the big shoot. Yet Betty will be in more peril herself soon...
The debate has raged since 1954 about whether Alfred Hitchcock's first The Man Who Knew Too Much was better or worse than his remake of the British thriller, or if not raged, then at least simmered a little, but there really is no definitive answer, it all depends on what you want from his films. It had to be observed the James Stewart and Doris Day version was a lot more polished, but that ramshackle charm was what the first effort had as a bonus over it, with the patina of British humour marking it out as more of a romp, that in spite of some very grave incidents making up the plot. They shared basic points in the story, though you could argue the fifties one made more of a meal of them.
This initial incarnation lasting a brisk and breezy hour and a quarter after all, and having the benefit of two excellent performances from two of the most valuable character leads in the business at the time. Banks was one of those, primarily a stage actor though his comparatively few film roles were where he made his mark with the public, appearing in a number of popular works that still command a following today; always distinctive thanks to his debonair but scarred features (thanks to an injury sustained during the First World War) his range extended from lightly eccentric to impressively weighty, and it's difficult to think of a single bad performance from him. In this case he was the ideal Hitchcock hero since he was afforded the chance to display that range in the space of a single movie.
The other excellent performance came from another actor, if anything, even more unforgettable than Banks. At the time Hitch was as much captivated by the work he had seen from the then-booming German studios as he was from the gritty Hollywood gangster epics flooding the market, and he was a big fan of Fritz Lang who had cast Hungarian actor Peter Lorre as the unsettling killer in M, so he arranged an interview with him with a view to playing the villain here. It all went swimmingly and before they knew it, Lorre had taken the role, only to turn out that he had been simply nodding and smiling all the way through that meeting, making Hitch believe they were getting along famously when in fact Lorre could barely understand him. Nevertheless, from that encounter a career boost was made and his appearance here was not only a gift to the star, but a gift to a thousand impressionists ever after.
Back at the plot, while you're enjoying the talents of those two pros, there was much to appreciate in the direction as well, in spite of Hitchcock dismissing his efforts here as amateurish. They may not be the smoothest scenes he ever shot, but the energy and innovation keeping it barrelling onwards were invaluable as Betty is kidnapped by Lorre's international criminal Abbott to prevent Bob and Jill from blabbing about an assassination scheme he has in mind back in London. Interestingly the authorities back in Blighty are well aware there is something up, so the Lawrences have to admit what they know, but Bob isn't giving up on getting Betty back so like a true crusader he indulges in detective work of his own. This leads to the Marathon Man-anticipating dentist, the creepy church, and eventually the Albert Hall, though unlike the remake this packs even more in and restages the infamous Siege of Sidney Street of over twenty years before in a grand shootout. For a thriller this quirky and idiosyncratic, many will prefer it to the later Hollywood stylings, Edna far more heroic than Doris in the long run.
[The Network Blu-ray looks terrific, a big improvement over those public domain DVDs that you may have accidentally purchased, and ideal for those who cannot play the Criterion Blu-ray. As extras there are a gallery and a vintage, Frenzy era documentary, featuring an interview with Hitchcock.]
The sixties started strongly with groundbreaking horror Psycho, and The Birds was just as successful, but then Hitchcock went into decline with uninspired thrillers like Marnie, Torn Curtain and Topaz. The seventies saw a return to form with Frenzy, but his last film Family Plot was disappointing. Still, a great career, and his mixture of romance, black comedy, thrills and elaborate set pieces will always entertain. Watch out for his cameo appearances in most of his films.